“You’re not a bad guy–just not a very good one,” young Angela (Alison Lohman) tells her newfound father, quirky con-man Roy (Nicolas Cage), about half-way through “Matchstick Men.” It’s a remark one might alter very slightly to refer to the movie itself, one of those cinematic shell-games in which characters get scammed but the biggest con is reserved for the audience. Ridley Scott’s picture is lovingly crafted and blessed with a talented cast and a reasonably amusing script. In the final analysis, however, in spite of its many strengths the film winds up less clever than it obviously thinks it is (in retrospect, there are a lot of holes in the scenario); the result exudes a smugness it doesn’t entirely earn.
The plot is actually pretty simple. Roy (Nicolas Cage) is a veteran con artist working with a young protégé named Frank (Sam Rockwell) in L.A. Some emotional problems lead him to a psychologist (Bruce Altman) who suggests that his difficulties might derive from his abandonment of a pregnant girlfriend fourteen years earlier. The revelation leads Roy to reconnect with his hitherto unknown daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), to whom he quickly becomes so attached that he decides to leave the profession. But before retiring, he agrees to pull one last, large job with Frank–the fleecing of a shady businessman (Bruce McGill) in a currency-exchange scam; and circumstances bring Angela into the scheme as well. To say much more would spoil the surprises in Nicholas and Ted Griffin’s script (based on a book by Eric Garcia). Suffice it to say that though “Matchstick Men” veers from “Sting” territory into domestic drama as the story progresses, there are twists and turns still to come to return it to its roots. Indeed, when the big shocker arrives, some in the audience may feel that, after the emotional investment they’ve made in the family side of the story, they’re the marks in a crueler con than any played on characters in the movie. It also has to be said that a great many viewers are likely to have spotted the switcheroo long before it’s revealed, and that Scott’s staging of the revelation is so heavy-handed and protracted that he seems to be under the impression that the audience will be too dense to comprehend it without directorial italics.
What distinguishes the picture isn’t so much the plot, in any event, as the colorful touches added to it. Most significant is the characterization of Roy, who’s presented as a walking compendium of phobias and tics. In playing these, Cage goes well beyond the oddness he radiated in “Adaptation,” or even “Leaving Las Vegas.” Indeed, you’d have to go back to “Vampire’s Kiss” to find him chewing the scenery with such comic ferocity. In that picture, however, Cage was transformed from an ordinary fellow into a kind of human gargoyle; here the development is reversed, and not nearly as amusing. The problem is that as he’s portrayed at first, Roy is less a real character than a convenient literary cliche; while we might be tickled to watch him go through his neurotic rituals–like compulsively opening and closing a door three times before going through it or obsessing over crumbs on the carpet–ultimately the guy has no dramatic weight. Cage does the shtick expertly, of course, but that’s really all it amounts to: a flashy, theatrical turn. A similar problem afflicts Rockwell. He’s playing a type–the affably grubby, slightly goofy sidekick–and he does it well enough, but that’s all there is. (Frank is another of his “breakthrough” roles that seem fated not to break through; Rockwell has been extremely unlikely in that regard.) Lohman, on the other hand, impresses again as a promising young talent, just as she did in “White Oleander.” And, of the trio, Angela is probably the most rounded and realistic figure, too. Though the picture is essentially a three-character piece, Altman has a suitably smooth demeanor as the helpful shrink, and McGill is appropriately snarly as the rich target.
“Matchstick Men” looks great–production designer Tom Foden and cinematographer John Mathieson have fashioned a sleek vision that’s maintained throughout, with an almost metallic surface emphasizing glistening but desaturated greens and blues. The soundtrack, featuring tunes by Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Wayne Newton, is also effective in establishing a loose, hip mood presumably intended to evoke the lighthearted Rat Pack caper movies of an earlier era that this one is trying to emulate. But the hard truth is that those pictures weren’t terribly good; and though “Matchstick Men” (like Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” which also attempted to recapture their coolness in modern dress) is substantially better–eye-catching and moderately enjoyable–in the final analysis it’s as slickly vacuous as Cage’s extravagantly showy performance is.